Well, the O.C. has been cancelled. The Fox television show will air its last episode towards the end of February. The announcement feels akin to receiving a phone call from a long-distant ex, telling you that he or she is leaving town for good and wanted to say goodbye: it’s nice of them to let you know, but any emotional investment you would once have had in their departure has long since disappeared.
The show’s conclusion brings a perplexing end to an equally perplexing story for the show. While hardly a Top 10 hit – a show has to be aimed at a much more general audience to pull that off – The O.C. was a runaway success amongst the demographic that matters most to ratings watchers and advertisers alike: young people, in particular females. Hook ‘em young, goes the theory, and with almost 10 million or so young people watching each week, it was no wonder that The O.C. became a hot commodity.
Because the show’s appeal was so youth-driven, you might not have gotten a sense of just how BIG the O.C. phenomenon was for its time if you weren’t in high school or university. But during my third year at Acadia, its influence was everywhere. Lounge televisions would be booked solid every Wednesday night, a sizeable crowd gathered around to watch. MSN names every Thursday morning would tell of the shocking plots twists, inspiring those who missed the episode the night before to download it off the campus file-sharing server. People actually celebrated Chrismakuh. Not even Lost – which became incredibly popular the following year – could garner the water-cooler attention that The O.C. did while I was in school.
So how does a youth-driven television sensation meet a sad and undignified end after only four seasons (the last one shortened to boot)? The O.C. serves as a case study for how to screw up a successful TV show.
The first reason is simple: make it suck.
Season one of The O.C. was fantastically involving, charmingly superficial television; a guilty pleasure at its best. It found a perfect medium between the grating self-importance of a Degrassi: The Next Generation and the grating self-indulgence of a Melrose Place. It somehow found a way to present an idealized fantasy world of wealth and privilege that most of us will never experience and yet fill it with relatable and even likeable characters that kept viewers emotionally invested. It gave the world Adam Brody’s Seth Cohen, a portrayal of a high school geek so endearing (even if idealized) that it almost makes you forget that for years they were the brunt of the joke (see Urkel, Steve). And it made it cool to have indie music as a television soundtrack (even if it was only the most accessible kind), inviting bands like Modest Mouse and The Walkmen to perform “live” and almost single-handedly turning Death Cab for Cutie into a name band.
But in amongst all the hype about the teenage actors on the show – the vomit-inducing Mischa Barton in particular – many missed that the The O.C.’s most important elements in that first season, and what distinguished it from every other teen show on television, were Sandy and Kirsten Cohen. Shows like Dawson’s Creek and One Tree Hill often placed parental figures on the periphery, usually more as a source of melodramatic conflict than anything. But not only did O.C. creator Josh Schwarz give Seth’s parents a prominent role in the show’s twisting plotlines, but he made them the show’s emotional anchor, ensuring that no matter how over-the-top and melodramatic the situations and peripheral characters might get, there would be a strong centre around which viewers could congregate.
And then came season two. I could single out dozens of poor decisions that caused the rapid slide into mediocrity – the increasing role of Ms. Barton in the show’s plotlines, the entire lesbian story and pretty much everything involving Ryan’s brother – and I could even point to season one’s Oliver plotline as a point where things started to go wrong. Still, the decision to violate the show’s anchors has to rank near the top of any list. I’m not saying Sandy and Kirsten shouldn’t have had their own plots and dramas; what I am suggesting is that the choices the writers made for them – Kirsten’s alcoholism and Sandy’s temptation with an old flame – felt as forced and sensationalistic as the hyperbolic drama that the teenagers were going through. Instead of keeping the parents as the more realistic, rational grounding for the show, the writers decided to send them into the gutter along with everyone else. It’s no wonder then, that the show’s quality followed them into it.
After the end of season two, I only watched a small handful of episodes: a couple at season three’s start that were so ludicrous that I declared my breakup with the show, and the third season finale, so I could relish in the cathartic joy that was the death of Marissa Cooper.
But you can’t blame declining quality alone for a show’s failure; dozens and dozens of shitty television shows still on the air prove that. So we turn to the second reason that The O.C. failed: timeslot shenanigans.
Fox, perhaps more than any other network, is cursed with a long history of scheduling and marketing mishaps, so much so that sometimes you sit back and wonder why any prospective producer would want to make a show with them (answer: no one else will pony up the cash). Fox consistently produces some of the most innovative, groundbreaking shows on television and ruins them by changing their timeslot once, twice, three times or more.
Sometimes, in doing this, the network is trying to find a new audience for a fledgling show but ends up losing the one it had in the first place (since no one can find it out when the hell it’s on). In the case of the O.C., which was a huge hit after its first year, the goal was different: to use a show’s successful ratings to boost up a fledgling night of programming. Fox (along with everyone else) was getting killed by the 1-2 punch of CBS’ Survivor and CSI and wanted a piece of the ratings pie on Thursdays.
The problem with this approach? The water on Thursdays was already blood red with competition. If moving the O.C. was to be successful, two variables would have had to fall into place: that people who watch The O.C. weren’t already watching TV on Thursday nights (unlikely), or that they would rather watch The O.C. than its competition (uncertain). A gamble like this can pay off for a runaway, cross-demographic sensation like Grey’s Anatomy; The O.C. floundered.
There’s another major factor here: a large portion of the O.C.’s audience are college students who download shows instead of watching them on television (and therefore, don’t count in the ratings). Therefore, the show’s ratings success lived or died on how many casual viewers it could pick up, and they sure as hell weren’t going to get any on an already-stacked Thursday night.
I’ve probably written more about this washed-up show than it deserved, so I’ll end on what I think the main point of all of this is: long-term success in anything, especially television, depends on figuring out what made that success happen. It’s not enough to simply ride the wave; you have to understand where the wave is coming from and where it’s going. In failing to do either, it’s no wonder The O.C. just drowned.